Readings & Workshops Blog

RHINO Writes: Poetry Workshops at the Evanston Public Library

Virginia Bell is the author of the poetry collection, From the Belly (Sibling Rivalry Press 2012). She has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for both the Lamar York Prize in Creative Nonfiction, sponsored by the Chattahoochee Review, and the Center for Women Writers’ Creative Nonfiction Contest. Her work is forthcoming in Hypertext Magazine and has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Cider Press Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Spoon River Poetry Review, Cloudbank, CALYX, Poet Lore, Pebble Lake Review, Wicked Alice, and other journals and anthologies. Bell is a senior editor at RHINO Poetry, and an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago and DePaul University. This fall, she is joining the faculty in the Creative Writing Conservatory at the Chicago High School for the Arts. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature and was the recipient of a Ragdale Foundation residency in 2015.

On June 5, 2016 at 1:30 PM, in a meeting room at the Evanston Public Library, poet Nate Marshall asked the thirteen poetry workshop participants to share their favorite words. The answers ranged from the minimalist “tin” to the Portuguese word for tenderness, “ternura,” and the vernacular “thing-a-ma-gig.” Marshall then spoke persuasively about the possibilities of using one’s own vernacular traditions, one’s own “slang,” in the production of a liberating poetic practice.

As the author of Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014) and editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books, 2015), Marshall described his own fascination with the word “finna,” as in “I’m finna go to the store,” a word that might translate as “fixing to” or “going to,” but that also carries the connotations of planning, intention, and agency. He then read one of his own poems that includes the word “finna.”

In the ensuing discussion, participants explored the difference between avoiding cliché or tired language on the one hand, and the personal and political energy derived from a contextually powerful deployment of vernacular words and phrases. There was also discussion of the idea that all humans, at any given time and place, practice and invent vernacular language, not just so-called “standard” language; in other words, emerging and changing vernacular traditions are a fundamental expression of human poetic creativity.

After this presentation and discussion, Marshall facilitated the peer critique of participants’ poems. Each participant circulated a poem, read it aloud, and then listened to the constructive feedback. Marshall led the group in a spirit of collaboration, with warmth, enthusiasm, and respect for diverse aesthetic practice, and wise suggestions for revision.

Indeed, RHINO has a long tradition of hosting poetry workshops in the spirit of collaboration. Founded in Evanston, Illinois in 1976 as a grassroots poetry workshop, RHINO began to publish an annual journal in 1978 to support the poetry community in Illinois. Since then, RHINO has become a nationally and internationally recognized journal of literature, publishing poems, flash fiction, and translations by new, emerging, and established writers. As an independent, all volunteer organization, RHINO continues to maintain an active local community presence, primarily through two programs: free monthly workshops led by accomplished poets and RHINO Reads!, a monthly reading series.

Other recent workshop leaders include Keith Leonard on “The Contemporary Ode,” Aricka Foreman on “Facing It: Memory, Melancholia and Waking,” and Cecilia Pinto on “Creating the World in Words: Poetry as Genesis.” Workshops are free and open to the public, and held on or near the fourth Sunday of the month, ten months a year.

Funding from Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program has made this program a success! All the workshops are well attended and well received. Several adult participants are “regulars” who return month after month, while others may be attending the first poetry workshop of their lives. RHINO welcomes experienced and novice poets alike. In Dean Young’s terms, we like to encourage “the art of recklessness,” but in a supportive and informative environment. To find out about upcoming workshops and readings, how to host a RHINO reading in your area, how to donate to RHINO, and how to submit to the RHINO Poetry, please visit our website!

Photos: (top) Virginia Bell. (bottom) Nate Marshall with workshop participants.  Photo credit: Virginia Bell

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Chicago is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers

Women's Stories From the Margins

Estevan Azcona, PhD, is director of MECA Presents, the arts and residency program at Multicultural Education and Counseling Through the Arts (MECA) in Houston, Texas. A former curator for the National Performance Network's Performing Americas Program, he has also served on grant panels for organizations including the National Association for Latino Arts and Culture. Azcona is an ethnomusicologist by training and also serves as Music Director for MECA's AfterSchool Arts program. Below, he blogs about a P&W–supported reading that took place on April 7, 2016.

MECA Reading

Multicultural Education and Counseling Through the Arts (MECA) is a Latino-based multicultural, multidisciplinary arts organization that has been serving low-income communities in Houston, Texas for almost forty years. Beginning in a local parish church to give "at risk" or "inner city'' neighborhood kids music, dance, and art classes after school and during the summer, MECA has since watched the inner loop of Houston change as gentrification played its part in the Sixth Ward neighborhood where the organization has always been located, as well as throughout the central part of the city, where it is becoming increasingly expensive to live. Instead of coming from down the block, or a mile or so away, families now bring their kids—some of them driving thirty minutes plus one way—to MECA from throughout the metropolitan area.

For some time now, Poets & Writers has been a welcome source of support for writers to come and read their work and give workshops to the kids, the families, and the public. Houston's first poet laureate, Gwendolyn Zepeda, is a MECA alumna from the Sixth Ward and has many times been central to bringing creative writing workshops to our students, with help from P&W, as have other local writers. As a predominantly performance and visual arts organization, this support has been critical in bringing letters into our programming.

In April of this year, we had the opportunity to present three Latina writers, each approaching their craft in different ways: local writer Jasminne Mendez is a powerhouse performance poet; Sarah Rafael García is a talented memoirist and youth writing advocate with her project, Barrio Writers; and Isabel Quintero is a gifted fiction writer who has recently garnered a lot of attention. We were lucky to have writer and poet, Edyka Chilomé, from Dallas, come to Houston to serve as emcee for the public reading.

When the authors came to us to do a project together, we were especially excited as the work of each of the writers eloquently addresses the experience of growing up and/or being Latina. While all youth from marginalized communities are challenged to have the opportunities other groups take for granted, at MECA we are not unaware of the obstacles for young women of color, and here was a great project to open the door for young Latinas to the work of these authors. Though we were concerned with turnout, as we do not often present writers, we had an audience of at least forty ready to hear the words and stories of this group of women, including a dozen or so youth who participated in the joint writing workshop. Virtually everyone stayed after the public reading to speak with the authors, buy books, and chat amongst themselves. And the sign was clear to MECA, do this again!

Photo: Jasminne Mendez. Photo credit: Pin Lim.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Houston is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Pride From El Barrio: Verónica Reyes on Bringing Xicana Readings to AWP

Verónica Reyes is the author of Chopper! Chopper! Poetry From Bordered Lives (Arktoi Books, 2013). She is a Chicana feminist jota poet from East Los Angeles. She scripts poetry for her communities: la jotería, Chicanas y Mexicanos. She has received grants and fellowships from residencies, such as the Montalvo Arts Center. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Feminist Studies, North American Review, and the Minnesota Review. Currently, Reyes teaches at California State University, Los Angeles.

firme tejana-clifas

“El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido//La jotería unida jamás sera vencida.” Xicana Power! Jota Power! In the air, I felt it. These fourteen mujeres voices needed to be here. To claim space. Establish our existence. In this society, the written text is valued. La palabra sets the boundaries as what gets recognized and what gets excluded. Chicana writing plays a pivotal role in breaking down puertas. Xicana jota literature must fight through many barriers. Our writings are a necessity.

April 2015
At the AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair in Minneapolis, the frigid air outside planted the yearning for warmth. So many writers were excited to meet old friends. I saw young writers feel at home. This was their community. But then I felt a knot inside me. I scanned the book fair and the hallways. It slapped me. Most of these writers were white.

I looked for poets/writers who mirrored me: a Mexican American butch dyke. Immediately, I understood Latinas/os were just a smudge of color in this mass. And this pissed me off. I was not going to accept: Brown, queer or straight, authors “absent” at this major writers’ event. So I invited Xicana—dykes and straight—writers and proposed three events.

April 1-2, 2016
El Centro’s morning sol draped the sky, the buildings, and the cracked sidewalks with the yawn of light. On Pico and Venice, I stepped off the bus. Breathed in downtown’s morning: warmth, cars, dust. Strolled up Pico to Figueroa, the clatter of skyscrapers’ noise stammered.   
The Los Angeles Convention Center was booming. Strutted up the walkway and saw an old friend, Wanda, my fellow Chicana dyke, the moderator for the Jota panel. Her face, her embrace, her queerness, her cariño, said it all why our presence was necessary.

All the readings were awesome. “Jotas: A Chicana Lesbian Reading by Barrio-Based Writers” event was amazing. The writers—Wanda Alarcón, Verónica Reyes, Claudia Rodríguez, Griselda Suárez—performed their work to a beautiful audience who dared to attend the first session. Alarcón’s framed the importance of Xicana jota literature and today’s plight. They absorbed their words and gave a beautiful embracing applause. Feminist poetry filled the room about East L.A. tacos dorados via Long Beach, chanting of power in the room, and culminating with the hiss of spray paint from a Compton poet. Everything was blaring pride.

Puentes bridges“¡Chicana! Power! A Firme Tejana-Califas Reading.” These writers— Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Anel Flores, Guadalupe García Montaño, Laurie Ann Guerrero, Emmy Pérez—were mesmerizing. Joy was pulsing in the room. García Montaño introduced each writer and the authors empowered the room with stories set in San Antonio, Río Grande Valley, L.A., and la frontera. The lives of immigrants were honored. Cariño for familia bloomed in the room.

“Puentes=Bridges: A Queer-Straight Mujeres Reading” presented Olga García Echeverría, Estella González, liz gonzález, Melinda Palacio, and Karleen Pendleton Jiménez. The audience mirrored puentes. The event was a beautiful roundabout. Each writer introduced the next one. It honored bridges and the support of each other. The readings explored a hotel Juárez, the Inland Empire in the seventies, an East L.A. memoir for her mama, and shared the road to butch pregnancy. Questions flew in to the writers. The room enveloped the love of literature from laughter, to tears, to pride. It was a beautiful culmination.

Photos: (top) firma tejana-califas readers. (bottom) Puetes=Bridges readers. Photo credit: Michael Senado.
Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation and the Hearst Foundations. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive Support and Encouragement

Vern Miller has authored many stories and articles. He holds advanced degrees in German Language and Literature, as well as an MBA degree, and has taught at two major universities. Now he is combining his enthusiasm for literature with his interest in business to publish the Fifth Wednesday Journal.

Fifth Wednesday Books, Inc., publishes a nationally recognized print magazine, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and the online literary magazine, FWJ Plus. In addition to the magazines, we organize and participate in literary events in many venues. Our mission is to be a bridge between the creative artist and a diverse and receptive audience, to make good poetry and prose a part of the daily lives of more people. We are an all-volunteer organization with highly qualified, very energetic, and intensely loyal editors and interns, who produce more than four hundred pages of poetry, fiction, essays, black and white photography, book reviews, and interviews each year. We began as a print literary magazine, and have expanded our programs and activities to include presentations in Chicago, New York, and other locations, as an essential part of our pursuit of excellence.

Five years ago we decided to do everything we could to bring even more poetry to people in Chicago through events featuring poets from around the country, music, and book signings and receptions. We needed partners. We asked for support. Support arrived. We are grateful to the Poetry Foundation for the donation of their much sought after space for our programs for the past five years.

We needed more. We asked. Poets & Writers came through like champions. We have received critical support in the form of grants to assist with reading fees, without which we could not offer national writers to our audiences in Chicago. Here are some highlights:

In 2013, Poets & Writers helped us bring Marge Piercy and Ira Wood to our Chicago audience. (More than a hundred people braved a torrent of rain and wind.)

In 2014, Poets & Writers again provided critical support for a very successful program featuring three Illinois poets: Michael Anania, Elise Paschen, and Jeffery Renard Allen. (Almost a hundred people came for readings, music, and reception, despite the typical rainy weather in Chicago.)

In 2015, Poets & Writers came through again when we asked for help in presenting a program of African American poets including Haki Madhubuti, Angela Jackson, Roger Reeves, and others. (More than a hundred people filled the seats, even as I fretted about our lack of sufficient publicity.)

Photos: (top) Ira Wood, Marge Piercy, and Andrea Witzke Slot. (bottom) Haki Madhubuti, Angela Jackson, Calvin Forbes, Roger Reeves, and Kelly Norman Ellis. Photo credit: Fifth Wednesday Books.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Chicago is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

A Night of Dinner and Poetry at the Queens Center for Gay Seniors

On June 20, 2016, the Readings & Workshops (East) program alongside the Queens Center for Gay Seniors organized a celebratory evening of poetry for LGBTQ seniors in Jackson Heights, New York. Poets & Writers brought together LGBTQ teaching artists Amber Atiya, Regie Cabico, Shira Erlichman, and Emanuel Xavier to perform their work. The reading culminated four months of writing workshops with diverse programming ranging from playwriting to watercolor poetry comics. The reading at the Queens Center for Gay Seniors was a heartwarming and unique experience, bringing together LGBTQ New Yorkers across many generations. We asked the evening's performers their thoughts on the experience. Below are their responses.

“From the start the seniors were incredibly warm, present, and receptive. I heard deep ‘ooofs’ and ‘oooos’ after some of us poets’ riskier lines. They were there with us—100 percent—start to finish. We were able to turn sharp corners as readers and trust that they'd be open and follow our lead. Simply put, I loved it. I was touched that I could read about illness, specifically mental illness, the stigma that comes along with it, the ‘coming out’ process of saying, ‘I have mental illness,’ the specifics of medication and the resilience it takes to grapple with it all and have a bright-hearted crowd listening intently, finding ways to enter my narrative, to connect, even if they didn’t directly relate to everything. As a reader, what more can you hope for? And yet, it’s not just the way they listened during the performance. After the show they made a point to reach out, introduce themselves, and say a few words; our private conversations were tender, their gratitude so felt, their own stories filling the air. I got hugs and posed for goofy pictures. I was made to feel not just welcomed, but included, at home.”
—Shira Erlichman, writer and musician, whose album Subtle Creature is forthcoming in August 2016.

“LGBTQ seniors + Jackson Heights + poetry = why I still love New York City. I was thrilled to connect with elders who have seen and lived through so much (and endure), who were attentive and lovely, and welcomed four poets into their space. (What a treat to perform in a zip code that doesn’t begin with 1-0-0 or 1-1-2!) Many thanks to Poets & Writers for inviting me to perform and for recognizing the importance of intergenerational programming. Thank you to Shira, Regie, and Emanuel for their words and hearts and jokes. To the queerest borough and the Queens Center for Gay Seniors: love and love to you, always."
—Amber Atiya, poet and book artist, and author of the fierce bums of doo-wop (Argos Books, 2014).

“My workshop was an intimate celebration of seniors' lives in Jackson Heights. It was my first time working with an elderly population and their candidness blew me away. Hearing stories of coming out during the pre-Stonewall era, romantic foibles, and their political passion to be themselves was heartbreaking and humorous. The audiences at the senior center’s banquet were riveted and inspired by hearing four younger diverse queer voices. So many of the seniors were not exposed to the theatrically charged works of the readers. So many audience members came up to me and thanked me. These seniors have seen and related to so much of the readers’ work on mental health, family, religion, and race. An audience member from the workshop shared his struggle with cancer to the group in a way that he had never shared before. These brave hearts embrace poetry, they listen with a rainbow pride. They inspire me to be fearless.”
—Regie Cabico, spoken word pioneer and slam champion, and coeditor of Flicker & Spark: A Contemporary Anthology of Queer Poetry and Spoken Word (Lowbrow Press LLC, 2013).

“I’ve read in front of many different audiences throughout the years, everywhere from universities to prisons, and I always walk away astounded that my work doesn’t only appeal to my age group or younger but mostly to those that are much older. As a gay Latino poet, it amazes me when a little old white lady comes up excitedly to meet me in, like, Ohio. Sometimes we forget how our work can be widely universal and speak through the generations. That’s why being invited by Poets & Writers to read for our LGBTQ seniors was such an honor because it was an opportunity to share our words with such a vibrant part of our community. It is just as important for us to listen to their stories and acknowledge those that came before us because our LGBTQ history should never be forgotten. Our struggle for equality continues but our journey was nothing compared to theirs.”
—Emanuel Xavier, poet and activist, author of the poetry collections Radiance (Rebel Satori Press, 2016) and Americano: Growing up Gay and Latino in the USA (Queer Mojo, 2012), and the novel, Christ Like (Queer Mojo, 2009).

For more photos of the event, click here.

Photos: (top) Poets Amber Atiya, Emanuel Xavier, Regie Cabico, Shira Erlichman. (bottom) Queens Center for Gay Seniors group photo. Photo credit: Christian Rodriguez.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers. This program is supported by public funds from the New York City Council, in partnership with the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and Department for the Aging.

A Time Portal Only Poetry Could Open: The Intergenerational Workshop Exchange

Born in Iloilo City, Philippines, Angela Peñaredondo is a Pilipinx poet and artist (on other days, she identifies as a usual ghost, subdued comet, or part-time animal). Her first full-length book, All Things Lose Thousands of Times (Inlandia Institute, 2016), is the winner of the Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize. This past spring, she taught the senior workshop for Poets & Writers' inaugural Intergenerational Workshop Exchange (IWE), where teens and seniors wrote in response to each other, then shared their work at a celebratory reading. Below, Peñaredondo reflects on the project, sharing a few excerpts from participants. (Be sure to check out last week’s companion blog post by IWE organizer and cofacilitator, Melissa Sipin.)

To be invited to participate as a teaching artist in Poets & Writers' Intergenerational Workshop Exchange in Los Angeles was an honor and a gift. I knew the experience would be a rare one. It was the type of experience that opened a time portal—the kind only poetry could bring about.

It was a rich kind of transport, but not an easy one.

My grandfather, Perpetuo Peñaredondo Sr., and his youngest brother, my grand uncle Jesus Peñaredondo, were guerilla fighters on the island of Panay. One worked in intelligence (you could call him a spy), the other was a foot soldier. My grandfather died almost ten years ago. My grand uncle, who is ninety years old now, has moved back to the island of Panay. My grandfather lived without receiving the full recognition of his service during the war. My uncle continues to live without receiving the full recognition of his service. Like I said, I was deeply ecstatic to work with this community, who reminded me so much of my grandfather and a lineage that cannot afford to live or die here in the United States.

The workshop I led took place at the Filipino American Service Group, Inc. (FASGI) headquarters in Historic Filipinotown, a location that has existed for almost thirty-five years. FASGI is an inner-city center that functions as many things: community center, community garden, service provider, transitional shelter, backyard party venue, and a place where you can see a real nipa hut built by the hands of Filipino World War II veterans.

The workshop setting was small, intimate, and warm with moments that felt fragile and painful, but not without acts of strength or creative surprise. With some gentle persuasion even my parents joined in and shared their stories connected to the war. During one of the writing exercises, I asked participants to close their eyes, focus on the sound of their breath, picture a particular object from their youth, imagine it in their hands, and to observe the weight and look of it inside their palms. When asked to write a poem about that single object, my mother wrote about her mother’s silver ring (forever lost in the flux of war and migration). Franco Arcebal, a World War II Filipino American veteran participant, wrote about the pen he used to write a letter to his granddaughter, about being a prisoner of war, how his then young body suffered intense torture and his body still remembers even after so many years have past. As I listened to him explain and read his poems, it sounded like both a love letter to his granddaughter and to the pen.

After the meditation and writing exercise, Arcebal spoke of his desire to be a better writer and that he always wanted to write a book, but not about the war. I enjoyed watching him scribble with intention in his small notepad. Observing him helped me write my own poem during a letter writing exercise I gave as a second writing prompt.

Beverly and Cleo Other workshop participants included three wives of deceased World War II veterans: Beverly Siapno in her mauve hat, Cleo Bisnar in her bright citrine dress, and Anacurita Santos, who in her candy cane striped sweater said (always with a smile) that she couldn’t do this. She could not write it down. It was too hard for her, she would tell me without explanation, again with a sweet smile. There were times I saw her jot down a few precious notes, but Anacurita could not bring herself to read her words aloud. I understood her. My grandmother was very similar—silent and curt, communicating indirectly with her hands. Anacurita communicated indirectly with her smile, lovely and charming, but also cryptic and resilient.

Beverly’s letter poem begins with the line:

There are things you need to know about where you come from—where we come from.

And she ends with:

And so that you will not become like how we once were: poor, hungry, searching for freedom.

Beverly read her poem during the culminating reading, still wearing her mauve hat like a small, red sun in the middle of the dark reading room.

Cleo was not able to make it to the reading. Instead, I imagined her reading her lines in her soft, graceful voice:

As an orphan, there was nobody to push me. Nobody who told me to try hard in school. Nobody who put food on the table. Nobody who said I love you and goodnight.

But—I had natural knowledge. I thank God for this. So, I can read and write a little. I wrote you this poem. I give you this gift.

Connecting Generations Reading

You can read work produced by teen and senior participants of the inaugural Poets & Writers’ Intergenerational Workshop Exchange in a special issue of TAYO Literary Magazine titled “Connecting Generations.”

Photo 1: Workshop participants (front, from left) David Rockello, Anacurita Santos, Cleotilde Bisnar, and Beverly Siapno; (back) Franco Arcebal, workshop leader Angela Peñaredondo, P&W fellow Melissa Sipin, and Ivonne Peñaredondo. Photo 2: Beverly Siapno and Cleotilde Bisnar. Photo 3: Connecting Generations Reading participants and partners (front row, from left): workshop leader Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Beverly Siapno, Franco Arcebal, Rose Rteimeh, Rosalinda Flores; (middle row) Ivonne Peñaredondo, P&W fellow Melissa Sipin, workshop leader Angela Peñaredondo; (back row) St. Bernard High School teacher, poet, and emcee Mike Sonksen, and P&W staff Jamie Asaye FitzGerald. Photo credit: Tess. Lotta.

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation and the Hearst Foundations. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

But This Body, It Remembers: The Intergenerational Workshop Exchange

Melissa Sipin, the McCrindle Foundation Readings & Workshops Fellow, reflects on the Intergenerational Workshop Exchange (IWE), a community project where teens and seniors wrote in response to each other, then shared their work at a reading. For the inaugural IWE, teens from St. Bernard High School and World War II Filipino American veterans and their family members from the Filipino American Service Group, Inc. (FASGI), took part in the collaborative workshop series over a three-month period this past spring. Below, Sipin reflects on her experience as organizer and cofacilitator, and shares a few excerpts from the participants. (Stay tuned for next week's companion post by Angela Peñaredondo, teaching artist for the senior workshop at FASGI.)

During the months of February and March, Poets & Writers supported two writing workshops as part of the first Intergenerational Workshop Exchange (IWE)—a rare writing exchange between seniors and youth that reached teens from St. Bernard High School and a group of World War II veterans and their family members from the Filipino American Service Group, Inc. The project culminated with a celebratory reading titled Connecting Generations on April 17 at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California.

The IWE was my passion project as the 2015-2016 McCrindle Foundation Readings & Workshops Fellow. I personally chose to focus on working with a unique and highly underrepresented senior population, World War II Filipino American veterans (learn more about their activism at Justice for Filipino American Veterans), as many are quickly aging and passing away without ever having their voices heard. My own grandfather, Major Diego A. Sipin, was a guerrilla fighter and officer in the U.S. Armed Forces in the Philippines, Northern Luzon, who passed away without receiving the full recognition of his wartime active duty service. Pairing the Filipino American veterans with St. Bernard High School students—many of whom are children of immigrants from all corners of Los Angeles—was a moving way to bring to light their shared and collective experiences.

Traci Kato-Kiriyama and students During the workshops, teaching artist Traci Kato-Kiriyama had the St. Bernard High School students write a letter to their imagined grandchildren. In response, teaching artist Angela Peñaredondo had the seniors write to their actual grandchildren. After reading the seniors’ brief but poignant letters—which detailed their wartime experiences and migrations to America—the students then wrote to the seniors directly, sharing and exchanging their own family stories of migration. They described in visceral detail the smells, sights, and tastes of where they came from—the taste of hummus on a hot, balmy day in Beirut or how the sun shone on a small village near the border in Mexico—which in turn created a deep and touching connection across generations.

One of the most moving moments during the celebratory reading was Franco Arcebal’s letter to his great-granddaughter, Veronica. Before he read his letter, he shared a brief portrait of his life during the war—how he was tortured with electric shocks, baseball bats, and water; how he escaped the “monkey house,” a makeshift prisoner-of-war camp the Japanese soldiers used as an execution house. He told the crowd that he could never really answer his great-granddaughter’s questions about the war, and that every time she asked, he was filled with silence…until he participated in the writing workshop with his fellow lolas (“grandmother” in Tagalog), all of whom were widows of World War II Filipino American veterans. Here is an excerpt of his letter:

We were six in the monkey house.

I was the youngest. 20. What they considered fresh and young and robust, something that needed to be broken.

I was the most severely tortured. My body still remembers. Sometimes I want to forget. But this body, it remembers.

Franco ArcebalIn loving response, one of the high school students, Yonathan Dereje, dedicated his piece to Arcebal:

Your great-granddaughter will love you, and you will love her. She is your privilege.... Your love for her wasn’t scarred, but only made it even more resilient. Your experience made you tougher and teaches me how to be resilient, and will forever teach me how to love and never give up.

The three-month project could not have been successful without our community partnerships, and I would like to personally thank the following for their precious time: teacher and poet Mike Sonksen, St. Bernard High School, the Filipino American Service Group, Inc., Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center for hosting the celebratory reading, and teaching artists Traci Kato-Kiriyama and Angela Peñaredondo.

These intimate letters are a testament to the power of sharing stories across cultures and generations—we share them because it is proof that what we hold dear and what we call home tend to always be the deep, unbreakable bonds we form with each other.

You can read work produced by teen and senior participants of the inaugural Poets & Writers’ Intergenerational Workshop Exchange in a special issue of TAYO Literary Magazine titled “Connecting Generations.”

Photo 1: (from left) Workshop participants Beverly Siapno, Cleotilde Bisnar, Anacurita Santos, David Rockello, Franco Arcebal, workshop leader Angela Peñaredondo, and P&W staff members Melissa Sipin and Brandi Spaethe. Photo 2: Workshop leader Traci Kato-Kiriyama with St. Bernard High School students Rose Rteimeh and Rosalinda Flores. Photo 3: Senior workshop participant and World War II veteran Franco Arcebal. Photo credit: Tess. Lotta.

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation and the Hearst Foundations. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Queens Lit Fest, A Happy Accident

Mike Geffner is the founder and producer of the Inspired Word literary/performance series and the Queens Lit Fest. For thirty years, he was a professional journalist who published stories in USA Today, Details magazine, Village Voice, Texas Monthly, the Writer, and Sporting News. He’s won awards for both column and feature writing, and was acknowledged seven times for excellence by the annual anthology Best American Sports Writing. Geffner retired from journalism in 2011 and is currently working on a book of poetry, tentatively titled Slogging Toward Death.

This was late March 2015. I was chatting with the event booker of a charming pub in Long Island City called LIC Bar. The place was already hosting several literary events and I felt it had the potential for something wonderful of my own. I just wasn’t sure what.

LIC Bar has the uniqueness of being broken into three distinct areas: a bar in front with antique-wood floors, brick walls, and a tin ceiling; an outdoor garden patio in the middle under the peacefulness of willow trees; and a private room in the back with a fireplace.

I mulled over a ton of ideas in my head before the words that would change my life spilled out: “How about a Queens Literary Festival?” It seemed perfect—the readings in the private room, the vendors in the patio, the schmoozing in the bar.

The booker agreed and we set a date for the first weekend in August. However, the second I left the bar, the reality hit: What did I just sign up for? How do you put together a two-day festival for an entire NYC borough in just four months?

It was daunting to say the least, though as a former journalist, I was used to dealing with deadline pressure and getting things done quickly. And as someone who has lived all his life in Queens, who loves his borough, I believed in the mission: to bring together Queens’s diverse literary community, to honor our literary artists, to create a dynamic event that would be unpretentious, all-inclusive, and filled with heart.

With the help of Inspired Word assistant producer, Poetry Teachers NYC founder, and fellow Queens resident Megan DiBello, aka Make It Happen Megan, we made it happen. We produced a cool logo, postcards, and T-shirts. We put together excellent programming, which included several notable Queens-based reading series; the current and previous Queens poets laureate, Maria Lisella and Paolo Javier, respectively; and an open mic that would level the playing field and make everyone feel involved.

We were written about in all the Queens newspapers prior to the event, and Megan, Maria, and I even appeared in studio on NY1.

It ended up being a glorious event. We had two sunny days, drew over three hundred people, and I’m proud to say that despite the event being free we paid all the featured artists with sponsorship money, including generous dollars from Poets & Writers.

This year’s event (July 16 to 17, 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM, open to all ages this time) will be on a grander scale. For one, the site is the wondrous wide-open space along the waterfront called LIC Landing, a symbol of the new Queens and which offers a stunning, unfettered view of the Manhattan skyline. We’re also collaborating with Hunters Point Parks Conservancy (leading the building of an ambitious new Queens Library of Hunters Point) and COFFEED, a coffee chain that donates 10 percent of its profits to nonprofit foundations and which owns and donated the event space. We’ve added, as well, a tireless arts visionary, Mark Christie, president of Friends of Queens Library of Hunters Point, as an organizer/consultant. And, once again support from the Readings & Workshops program at Poets & Writers.

I know now what I’ve gotten myself into. We’re smack on the forefront of Queens’s culture renaissance, part of a movement to make Queens a literary destination, not just a pit stop to Brooklyn or Harlem. We’re forever on the timeline of Queens history. What an amazing thing from a few blurted out words.

You can follow the Queens Lit Fest on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @QueensLitFest. For more info, to RSVP, donate, or to sign up for the open mic, go here.

Photos: (top) Mike Geffner. (bottom) Megan DiBello.  Photo credit: (top) Jay Franco. (bottom) Mike Geffner. Artwork credit: Edward Cox.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support form the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Union Square Slam: Putting the Unity Back in Community

Cecily Schuler received their MFA in Writing from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Having attended both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Vermont Studio Center, Schuler has had their work featured in the Offing, Fairy Tale Review, Wicked Banshee, Ellipsis, and Duende, and anthologized in great weather for MEDIA and Fire Stories: Further Thoughts on Radically Rethinking Mental Illness. Schuler's chapbook, 296, chronicling the author's experience living with multiple mental health diagnoses, is available from Next Left Press. Schuler cofounded and manages Union Square Slam, a weekly poetry open mic/slam in the heart of New York City.

What makes your program(s) unique?
I would say that, while we share components of each, we are not your average open mic, poetry reading, or poetry slam. Union Square Slam (USS) was created to not only serve the local and national slam poetry circuit, but more so to provide a creative space for our local poets and authors to branch out, foster, and showcase their particular talents and interests. We are looking to showcase the broad range of overlapping scenes here in New York City, as well as poetic style and talents from other regions of the country.

We encourage audience engagement in a number of ways: “If You Feel Something, Say Something.” If someone says something on the mic that moves you, it’s the culture of the show to respond to that movement through snapping/clapping, moans/groans, shouting and talking back. On paper that sounds like a ruckus, but at the show it can be encouraging and empowering. We also offer writing workshops with highly skilled facilitators before the show each week. Sometimes we ask for donations that go towards the facilitator, but more often than not, the workshops are free! All of the organizers are also working artists, and we know how challenging it can be to keep creating while volunteer organizing on top of working a 9-5. These weekly workshops are just another way we hope to generate community-based quality work for our show attendees.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
We inherited a venue and show day/time from another open mic/poetry slam in January 2015. Over time, it became clear that the venue and our show were growing in different directions artistically and aesthetically. In November of the same year, we switched venues to our current home in the Bureau of General Services - Queer Division. It was such a relief in so many ways: not only were we in a venue dedicated solely to literary and visual arts, we could now serve all ages and accommodate folks who use wheelchairs. We have managed to build a steady and returning audience, book and fund our features (thanks P&W!!) and have a successful slam season, culminating in USS sending our very first team to the National Poetry Slam in Decatur (Atlanta), Georgia this August. It was a lot of rigmarole, and yet people have come out of the woodwork to offer us support in countless ways. (Speaking of which, please consider helping USS reach its fundraising goals for the team by donating here.)

How do you find and invite readers?
Part of Union Square Slam’s mission is to amplify voices of the oppressed. We aim to book features who self-identify in one or more of the following: people of color and/or queer/LGBTQIA and/or disabled/alter-abled/neurodiverse and/or poor/working class. We don’t go looking for artists who fit these criteria; rather, we check ourselves against this standard as we are booking. Our organizers have been involved in different aspects of not just the national slam scene, but other literary scenes throughout New York City, so between us, we’ve had a wide range of featured poets this year.

Photo: (top) Cecily Schuler. (bottom) Grand Slam Champ Nkosi Nkululeko. Photo credit: (bottom) Guangpyo David Hong.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Fund Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Janine Joseph on Her Homecoming With Undocumented Students

Janine Joseph is the author of Driving Without a License (Alice James Books, 2016) and winner of the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Best New Poets, Best American Experimental Writing, Zócalo Public Square, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and elsewhere. Her commissioned libretti for the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco include What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, On This Muddy Water: Voices From the Houston Ship Channel, and From My Mother's Mother. Joseph serves as vice president of the Writers@Work executive board and is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. She blogs about her P&W–supported reading for the Poesía Peligrosa series at the University of California in Riverside.

Janine Joseph

A 2009 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow, I was invited late last year to “take over” their Instagram account for a whole week so that followers could meet me and get a sense of my "New American" story. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I shared pictures and brief stories about my family’s immigrant beagles, my Lolo Lazarus, and what it was like to live, for the first time, in a landlocked state. As the publication of my debut collection of poetry, Driving Without a License, was (then) just a few months away, I talked also about my experiences as a formerly undocumented American. Through luck or happenstance, a student and the vice president of PODER (Providing Opportunities, Dreams, and Education in Riverside) at my alma mater, University of California in Riverside (UCR), saw my posts and asked if I might be interested in doing a reading for a specially themed Poesía Peligrosa event during their upcoming Immigrant Awareness Week.

I graduated from UCR in the spring of 2005—three years before PODER, which “seeks to provide assistance to undocumented students through mentorship, financial assistance, and community building,” was established, so this invitation and event was an emotional homecoming for me. In short, the partnerships between PODER, Teatro Quinto Sol, and the office of Chicano Student Programs at UCR, coupled with the generous monetary support from Poets & Writers, made it possible for an undocumented student group to bring me in to read about my experiences as an undocumented person. To add to the significance of this event even further: It brought me back to the very school where I had studied creative writing as an undocumented student.

And what a gift the occasion was. Poesía Peligrosa, which was hosted by two current UCR undergraduates, brought together a mix of music, theater, and poetry to the stage. The night began with an interactive performance by UCR's Theater of the Oppressed, followed by my reading from Driving Without a License, and ended with students sharing their own immigration-themed work. The audience, which consisted of current UCR students, alumni, UCR staff, and family members, was lively, attentive, and welcoming. There were also students and their chaperones from a local high school in attendance. Later, I looked around the room from where I sat in the back and imagined that this would have been my community nearly a decade ago, had the organization existed. I was overjoyed and relieved to know that current students had the support and space I had once longed for.

It is my hope that this event sets a personal precedence, particularly in how I plan readings in support of the book, and that I will be able to give back to other undocumented student groups around the country. It is my hope, too, that the students who I had the great privilege of meeting continue to share their stories and continue to complicate our ever-expanding American identities. I am thankful to Poets & Writers for supporting this effort, these events, and writers with immigrant backgrounds like ours.

Photo: Janine Joseph. Photo credit: Jaclyn Heward.

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation and the Hearst Foundations. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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